How one woman saved snow leopards

Bayarjargal Agvaantseren helped create the 1.8 million-acre Tost Tosonbumba Nature Reserve in the South Gobi Desert—a critical habitat for the vulnerable snow leopard—in April 2016, then succeeded in persuading the Mongolian government to cancel all 37 mining licenses within the reserve. An unprecedented victory for the snow leopard, as of June 2018 there are no active mines within the reserve—and all mining operations are illegal


A vulnerable predator lost in the minefield

Thousands of snow leopards once roamed Asia’s soaring peaks, from the Himalayas through China’s vast plateaus. This apex predator is most at home at altitudes of 10,000 feet or more, and its range can reach up to 200 square miles. At less than 100 pounds and barely two feet tall, the deceptively small stature of the elusive “mountain ghost” belies its ability to survive in harsh environments. Nevertheless, snow leopards are slow to reproduce, breeding only once every two years, and lose many cubs to the unforgiving climate.

Listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, only 4,000-7,000 snow leopards remain in the wild, with nearly 1,000 of those living in Mongolia’s steep mountain ranges and narrow ravines—the second largest population in the world. Poaching for pelts and paws, snatching cubs to sell, retribution killing for livestock depredation, and habitat loss have all contributed to a significant decline in global snow leopard populations over the past 15 years.

Snow leopards’ habitat loss is compounded by Mongolia’s booming mining industry. More than 80% of the nation’s exports are minerals, and the South Gobi Desert—a semi-arid, cold desert that forms the heart of snow leopard territory—is a major mining hub. Vast deposits of coal, uranium, copper, gold, oil, and gas have attracted massive extractive operations by Russian, Mongolian, and Chinese companies. Mining further fragments and destroys critical snow leopard habitat, pushing nomadic communities deeper into the snow leopard’s already-scarce territory and causing conflicts between humans, livestock, and snow leopards.

Teacher, organizer, leader

Born to a village teacher in northern Mongolia, Bayarjargal Agvaantseren, 49, started her career as a Russian and English language teacher and tour guide. While interpreting for a visiting scientist who came to Mongolia in the 1980s to study the snow leopard, she became fascinated with the cats, and decided to devote her life to its protection. Before founding the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation in 2007, she worked for many years with Mongolia’s far-flung herder communities on conservation projects and community initiatives. The foundation provides livestock insurance for herders, supports research initiatives, and has a conservation handicraft program run by women. Agvaantseren is also the Mongolia director for the International Snow Leopard Trust. She lives in Ulaanbaatar and makes the two-day, off-road drive to Tost about three times per month.

Persistence in the face of obstacles

In 2009, Agvaantseren learned about extensive mining operations in the Tost Mountains—an area that bridges two existing national parks in the South Gobi, serving as a key migration corridor and critical habitat for snow leopards. Agvaantseren had earned the trust of the Tost community through her years of working in the province and, acting as an envoy for the community, met with government officials to advocate that Tost become a federally protected area.

To garner support for creating the Tost Tosonbumba Nature Reserve, Agvaantseren collaborated with environmental journalists in Ulaanbaatar on a mass public outreach campaign that included publishing daily news articles, social media events, and interviews with key lawmakers. In April 2016, her advocacy resulted in the formal designation of the 1.8 million-acre Tost Tosonbumba Nature Reserve—the first federally protected area in Mongolia created specifically for snow leopard conservation. The reserve protects a core breeding population of snow leopards and forms a combined area of over 20 million acres of contiguous protected snow leopard habitat in the South Gobi.

Although the designation was a major victory, numerous active mining licenses within the reserve had been grandfathered in. Agvaantseren continued to pressure government authorities to nullify the remaining licenses to comply with the law. By June 2018, all 37 active mining licenses with the reserve had been canceled.

Agvaantseren’s persistent advocacy, community engagement, and collaboration with government officials led to the major victory, in April 2016, of the designation of the Tost Tosonbumba Nature Reserve, which ultimately canceled all active mining licenses within the reserve’s boundaries.

In a remote, unforgiving corner of the world dominated by runaway mining operations, Agvaantseren championed protections for Mongolia’s remaining population of snow leopards. Moreover, she was able to shift perceptions of snow leopards among herder communities, who now see the animal as an integral part of their identity.

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on May 01, 2019